On the Greek island of Lesbos this week, 24 NGO volunteers went on trial in a case condemned by a European parliament report as a “criminalisation of solidarity”. All faced charges relating to assistance given to migrants fleeing the Syrian civil war in 2015-16. Accused of accessing Greek coastguard radio channels and illicitly entering restricted zones on Lesbos, the volunteers risked years in prison before most charges were dropped on procedural grounds. But their draconian treatment, increasingly replicated elsewhere in Europe, had already achieved its central purpose: the organisation they worked for no longer dares to operate off Lesbos, where at least 22 migrants died in October attempting the crossing from Turkey.
As idealistic young Europeans and former refugees are hauled into the dock for attempting to save lives at sea, Europe’s governments are pondering what more can be done to shore up the defences of a rich continent against the poor and the desperate. In the Arctic town of Kiruna, the first meeting convened by the six-month Swedish presidency of the European Union has just taken place. This precedes a February summit in which reducing irregular migration numbers will be a central theme.
As it channels the influence of the radical-right Sweden Democrats party – on whose support it depends – the Swedish government is pushing the idea of limiting trade access for countries that fail to cooperate in reducing the flow of their citizens across European borders. The mood music has also made it clear that meaningful progress on an EU-wide migration pact, first proposed two years ago, will not be made on Stockholm’s watch.
The ongoing absence of a refugee-sharing mechanism among member states is leading to ever harsher treatment of migrants at borders and the continuing rise of illegal pushbacks. Along the borders of Hungary, Croatia and Romania, EU law and UN conventions are being openly defied as migrants languish in a freezing no man’s land. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s new government has introduced legislation to make life more difficult for NGOs attempting to conduct search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Britain’s unenforceable Rwanda deterrence strategy is championed by countries such as Austria as a way forward for the EU.
As the number of irregular migrants continues to rise, history will judge this approach as a practical and moral failure. The 21st-century challenges posed by global migration and demographic change will not be met by brutally battening down the hatches. A recent long-term forecast by Frontex, the EU’s border agency – itself accused this year of complicity in illegal pushbacks – identified the climate emergency, food insecurity, growing inequality and rapid demographic change as future drivers of increased migration from the global south. Africa’s population is predicted to increase by half by 2050. As poorer countries grow younger, Europe will continue to age, and its need for migrant labour will become ever more pressing. These “mega-trends”, as the Frontex document describes them, require a response that goes beyond cynically co-opting the xenophobic agenda of radical-right parties.
The Swedish ambassador to the EU, Lars Danielsson, said this week that “migration is an issue where you can win or lose elections in virtually every member state”. Post-crash, as politicians such as the Sweden Democrats leader, Jimmie Åkesson, have linked the issues of blue-collar economic insecurity to immigration, that has become true. But mainstream European leaders must address the bigger picture. In coming decades, the case for proper legal routes for migration, and far greater economic assistance delivered beyond Europe’s borders, will become overwhelming. Sadly, the chances of that kind of conversation taking place during Sweden’s six-month EU presidency are vanishingly small.
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